The Hakhu Project: Empowering Women in the Amazon

Nina Gualinga, co-founder of the Hakhu Project, shares the story and inspiration behind the organization dedicated to supporting indigenous communities in the Ecuadorian Amazon, following their collaboration with the Model Mafia.

Growing up in an indigenous community in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Nina Gualinga has been on the front line of the fight against extractivism and climate change faced by indigenous communities. “One of the biggest and most urgent problems problem we face in the Ecuadorian Amazon is the extraction of natural resources and the fossil fuel industry,” Nina explains. Seeing this threat and inspired to do something about it, Nina co-founded the Hakhu Project.

“The Hakhu Project was born as a way to support indigenous youths and women in our communities. We – five indigenous youths – wanted to build the power of our communities to defend our way of life and our home against threats such as oil, gas and road development. The idea is to have a for-profit, Hakhu Amazon Design, and a non-profit, Hakhu Amazon Foundation working hand in hand for change.”

Hakhu, which means ‘let’s go’ in Kichwa, raises money to support indigenous people and communities who are in resistance against oil exploitation and are fighting against climate change, donating 15% of the sale of each product in its collection of handmade jewellery and accessories to the Hakhu Amazon Foundation.  “Through enabling community-based economic initiatives we think that we can generate positive social change,” says Nina. “Hakhu provides a unique opportunity to indigenous women in the Ecuadorian Amazon to utilise our cultural and artistic heritage in such a way as to protect our territories while providing them with a sustainable source of income.”

“Indigenous women are often the hardest hit by the arrival of extractive industries,” explains Nina.  “In addition to losing their livelihoods – and their means of providing for their families – they are assaulted at high rates by the fossil fuel and company workers.  However, indigenous people and women are far from powerless. They work on the frontlines – as equals to and leaders of their male counterparts – in the political, legal, moral, and physical defence of their land and way of life. Indigenous communities protect the Amazonian rainforest through their resistance and therefore it’s crucial to support and empower our communities, so that we can continue living and protecting our sacred land.”

Cameron Russell wearing Hakhu Amazon Design. Credit: Nyra Lang

After a chance meeting with Cameron Russell (“It was a really beautiful coincidence”) at the Climate Summit in San Francisco in September, Hakhu and Model Mafia went on to collaborate on a photoshoot for the Model Mafia’s two year anniversary, photographed by Nyra Yang. “We got invited to an event with Culture Strike to join artists that were creating positive change and working for climate justice. There we met Cameron who heard our story and wanted to support in some way – and that’s how it all started!”

The beautiful pieces in the collection are all inspired by the nature of the rainforest, but also influenced by the contrast of life in the modern city.   “We draw inspiration from nature itself and we work closely with the artisans to develop the designs. For this particular collection I have drawn my inspiration from the contrasts in my own life,” says Nina. “From two radically different worlds: life in the Amazon and life in the ‘modern city’. I believe there can be a balance; I believe there can be respect and appreciation of differences. That’s what I want to show with this collection. I’ve used the colours of the moon, of the sun, of water and fire, the light of day and the dark of night.

“I’ve tried to use beads as well as seeds from the forest, with traditional inspired patterns and colours. That’s what it’s about: to build a bridge between two worlds.”

Pictured: Nina’s mother, a political leader, wearing the Hakhu Project.

See more Hakhu Project jewellery modelled by members of the Model Mafia as they reflect on an incredible two years